Ratha (papertygre) wrote,

Thoughts about Bullshit and "Me"diation

I never wrote about On Bullshit after mentioning it here and here, although I was planning to. (The first post has a link to a video segment of the author discussing the book on the Daily Show.)


On Bullshit is an essay in hardcover. It's a cute little book with wide margins and large print. It aims to begin the establishment of a "theory" of bullshit, in particular to explain how it's different from lying and evaluate whether it's a problem.

Discussion of bullshit in its various aspects -- e.g. as bluffing, as red tape, as something perceived as somehow less harmful than lying -- leads to Frankfurt's view that bullshit is different than a straightforward lie in two ways:

1. A lie is intended to deceive the listener about the truth of the facts being expressed, but bullshit is intended to deceive the listener about the speaker's attitudes and qualities. For example, "Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about 'our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.' ... He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him." (pp. 17 - 18)

2. Bullshit is characterized by a lack of interest in the truth of the facts being discussed. The bullshitter does not necessarily say false things; what is wrong is that the bullshit doesn't accurately represent the speaker's knowledge and beliefs. Liars, on the other hand, are inherently interested in the truth of the facts being discussed: the liar must know what the truth is and must care about what is true and false in order to advance his false version of things.

In other words, bullshit is not false but phony. There may be nothing wrong with it, except for the fact of who is saying it. "What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it is made." (p. 47)

So what does Frankfurt think of bullshit? He seems to tie it to a certain "antirealist" movement, which has been driving a move away from the ideal of correctness and toward a surrogate ideal of sincerity. Such a view claims that there is no such thing as objective correctness anymore, so sincerity will have to stand in. In Frankfurt's opinion, this has led toward disturbing results. He concludes the essay with:
But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit. (pp. 66 - 67)
The impression I get is that Frankfurt fears that bullshit will dilute what is genuine progressively more, until finally no one cares about it any longer.


Yesterday I stumbled on a Salon article about the book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and How You Live in It by Thomas De Zengotita. This book seems to furnish a perfect counterpoint to Frankfurt's view. I haven't read the book, so I will write about it as if I had based on the content of the Salon article.

Mediated is, in a certain light, about how narcissistic modern Western culture has become. The opening paragraph of the article illustrates:
Let's say you like cats. When you visit a friend's house and he happens to have a cat, you make a big deal about stroking it, picking it up, talking to it. And you do the same thing with every cat you encounter. It demonstrates to the people around you that you're a sensitive, sympathetic, tactile person. All these things are true of you, including your innate adoration of cats. But that doesn't mean to say you haven't cultivated your cat-fancying into a self-conscious, gushing performance that somehow represents you. This doesn't make you a phony; it makes you something else: mediated.
De Zengotita claims that two things have come between us and the authenticity of earlier generations: greatly expanded choice; and immersion in flattering media (such as advertisements) which suffuse us with a feeling of responsibility to "be ourselves," to become a worthy target of that attention. The conflict is that with so much choice available to us today, we often have to make somewhat arbitrary decisions in order to provide our identities with something firm to build on. But De Zengotita doesn't think this is necessarily bad. He argues that a world with a little bit of disorientation, method acting, and invented drama is a lot better than a world with an equivalent amount of hunger, need, and sickness.

So De Zengotita says that accepting this method acting, this mediation, as an OK response does something funny to our notion of the real. The "real" becomes, to a certain extent, whatever we couldn't choose: sudden illness, the personalities of our children, etc. But this has a surprising implication:
[W]hen chance and necessity are all that's left to you of reality -- and there's not much of it -- then the opposite of real is no longer phony or artificial, which is what it has been since the romantics. The opposite of real now is optional. The slight feeling of unreality that attends all the commitments you actually make attends them because they're made against this horizon of choices.
So maybe it was unfounded to worry that bullshit might rise up and blot out all that is genuine. After all, if bullshit is counterfeit speech, then there must continue to be genuine speech for it to imitate, or else it will stop being a successful copy of anything and people will stop bothering to speak at all.


But there does seem to be something bothersome about the idea of bullshit, of the phony. And it's not just aesthetic -- there's something that feels corrosive about it.

Frankfurt writes:
Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:
In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.
The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. ... Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit. (pp. 19 - 20)
Well, perhaps that's melodramatic -- but whether or not there were such superior craftsmen in days of yore, there is still something in the archetype that seems worth striving toward.

I often find myself reaching for that mediated stance -- a comfortable distance from things, a persona from which I can take events in stride, can react to them in a stylized and characteristic way. But I wonder if it's possible to refuse to be mediated, even in the face of egocasting, overwhelming choice, and the shadow of anomie.

Tags: books, critique, culture, essays, ethics, ontology, philosophy

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